Hitler’s Mennonite Voters

Ben Goossen

In May 1933, Mennonites delivered Adolf Hitler the only country-wide majority he achieved in an open election. Four months after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany at the head of a short-lived coalition with another party, the Nazis won an outright majority during elections in a nearby microstate known as the Free City of Danzig. Located in what is today northern Poland, Danzig had a substantial Mennonite population. Mennonite ballots pushed the Nazis over the 50 percent threshold in the popular vote.1 A parliamentary majority allowed the Nazis to rule Danzig alone, and no fair state-wide elections were held again.

Would Mennonite opposition have prevented the Nazi Party from violently seizing full control of Danzig and turning the city into a loyal puppet state for Hitler? Assuredly not. Events surrounding the burning of the Reichstag in Germany demonstrate the Nazis’ willingness to manufacture crises to sideline their elected colleagues and to move toward single-party dictatorship. But then again, to envisage a world in which Danzig’s Mennonites did not widely welcome Nazism is to conjure an alternative reality indeed.2

As 1.5 percent of Danzig’s population, Mennonites punched above their weight. This historically pacifist Christian church disproportionately influenced Nazi rule in the Free City. During World War II, members became enmeshed in the Holocaust, staffing concentration camps and using Jewish slave labor on their farms and in their factories. Prominent Nazis believed most Mennonites were “Aryan.” They planned to settle tens of thousands from the USSR and the Americas on land in Eastern Europe stolen from Jews, Poles, and others. “[I]t would be of great propagandistic importance for the Mennonites overseas,” one SS officer wrote, “if one could deal very generously with the Mennonites in Danzig and their desires.”3

Hitler entered Danzig on September 19, 1939, early in World War II. His visit celebrated the Free City’s return to German sovereignty and the end of its status as a nominally independent Nazi puppet state. While in Danzig, Hitler spoke about Mennonites with Nazi politician Walter Neufeldt. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

After the Third Reich collapsed, Mennonite leaders from Danzig falsely portrayed themselves as victims of fascist persecution. Bruno Ewert, elder of the Heubuden church, disingenuously claimed: “The Jewish religion especially was severely attacked by the party, and since Christianity developed within the Jewish religion, it too, was cast aside.”4 Ewert failed to mention that like most of Danzig’s top Mennonite faith leaders, he himself had joined the Nazi Party. At the height of the Holocaust, in fact, he took advantage of Hitler’s machinery of death to grow church membership. Ewert performed baptisms at a site where Nazi doctors had killed children with disabilities. Murder helped make Mennonitism under Hitler’s rule.


The Free City of Danzig was a bizarre byproduct of the First World War. The city itself—today Gdańsk—had been founded in the tenth century. It was an old Hanseatic trading city on the Baltic Sea, humming with north European ship traffic and flush with products from its farming hinterland in the fertile Vistula River delta. Danzig’s population grew by the early twentieth century to around 400,000 people, ninety-five percent of whom spoke German. At the end of the First World War, the new state of Poland desired Danzig as a port, despite its strong German ties. The independent “Free City” emerged as a compromise.

Mennonites had inhabited the area since the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. They had originally come as religious refugees from the Netherlands. The ex-priest Menno Simons had promoted a radical embrace of Biblical teachings that challenged the authority of Catholic and Lutheran rulers alike. His followers practiced adult baptism. They refused to swear oaths. And they did not spread their faith with violence. As thousands faced imprisonment and death in West Europe, refugees found toleration in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. They built thriving farming communities across the Vistula Delta.

Between the World Wars, around 13,000 Mennonites lived along the Baltic Sea in nineteen congregations. The creation of Poland and the Free City of Danzig after World War I divided this population, which had previously been entirely within German borders. This map shows locations of Mennonite settlement in and near the Free City of Danzig. The Free City’s territory included 6,000 Mennonites, organized into six rural congregations as well as one urban church in the city of Danzig proper. Map adapted from GAMEO.

Four hundred years later, the Mennonites who helped to bring Nazism to Danzig were a theologically transformed group. Prior to the 1933 election, one preacher praised National Socialism to a ministerial assembly as “the only party which we as Mennonites can support.”5 This viewpoint would have been anathema to this preacher’s own ancestors. Church historian C. Henry Smith, observing from across the Atlantic, rightly assessed that Danzig’s Mennonites strayed from their roots. “Menno Simons would find himself ill at ease, today, among his namesakes,” Smith wrote, “were he to return to his familiar haunts around the Baltic.” A time-travelling Menno would soon be “in all likelihood, in a concentration camp.”6

Two factors made Danzig’s Mennonites particularly susceptible to Hitler’s project. First, members saw themselves as part of a global religious denomination they viewed as vulnerable to atheist communism. Since the eighteenth century, thousands of Mennonites had emigrated from the Danzig area to Imperial Russia. Although nationalist pressure convinced Danzig’s Mennonites to abandon pacifist teachings, they retained ties to pacifist coreligionists abroad. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Mennonites in the new Soviet Union faced hardships. Their relatives in Danzig welcomed Hitler’s anti-Bolshevism and his antisemitism. The Führer blamed Soviet atrocities on a fictional cabal he labeled “Judeo-Bolshevism.”

Racial scientists considered Mennonites to be unusually pure specimens of Aryanism. Anthropologist Friedrich Keiter studied 386 members—including these three women—in or near the Free City of Danzig in 1931, helping integrate local Mennonites into racial scholarship already before Hitler’s rise to power. Source: Keiter, Rußlanddeutsche Bauern, Tafel VIII.

Second, Nazism appealed to Danzig Mennonites’ sense of aggrieved nationalism. Those who had given up pacifism and chosen not to emigrate adopted a strong German identity. They lamented Germany’s defeat in the First World War, and they reviled the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which became a nationalist punching bag. This treaty assigned guilt for World War I to Germany. It required steep reparations. And it split Danzig from Germany. The nineteen Mennonite congregations in eastern Germany, with 13,000 attendees, had once formed a united group. Versailles divided them between Germany, Poland, and the Free City (where 6,000 lived). Mennonite farmers further resented Danzig’s customs union with Poland.

During the 1930s, Mennonites became involved at every level of the Nazi Party in Danzig. Arthur Greiser, president of the Danzig Senate, reportedly praised Mennonites for having been his “fellow comrades in the years of struggle [before 1933].”7 One Mennonite activist, Otto Andres, became the second-highest-ranking Nazi in Danzig.8 Mennonite men joined the paramilitary SA and the SS. Their mothers, wives, and sisters populated Nazi women’s organizations. As was typical of other religious groups, many top officers probably left the church, but rank-and-file members usually retained church affiliation.9 Mennonite faith leadership became deeply Nazified. Party members headed five of the seven churches in the Free City.10


Nazi-controlled Danzig remained technically separate from the Third Reich until the outbreak of World War II. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded neighboring Poland on false pretenses. Hitler declared Danzig’s reunification with the Reich, and on September 19, he triumphantly entered the formerly free city. Danzig’s predominantly German population welcomed the Führer and cheered their merger with Germany. After delivering a speech, Hitler met with local Nazi leadership in Danzig’s party headquarters. The conversation apparently touched on Mennonites. The Führer reportedly requested more materials about the faith, exclaiming: “Future founders of religions should take Mennonite traits as examples!”11

What impressed Hitler about Mennonites? The brief discussion in Danzig in 1939 surely did not highlight the faith’s historic pacifism. No transcript of this encounter exists, but we can surmise what the Führer likely heard by analyzing how religious leaders publicly depicted their faith in other instances. The main strategy church officials deployed to ingratiate themselves with top Nazis involved claiming racial purity. Mennonites had supposedly kept their bloodlines “Aryan” through centuries of intermarriage. German racial scientists had tested Mennonite populations in Danzig and agreed with this assessment.12 Faith leaders further sought to prove heritage by harvesting centuries-old data from church record books.13

Mennonites’ privileged racial status drew them into Nazi crimes. Hitler waged World War II as a race war. His soldiers conquered vast swaths of Eastern Europe to provide expanded “living space” for the German people, whom the Nazis considered a “master race.” The invaders and local collaborators seized property from Poles, Jews, and others. They distributed this plunder to members of the German racial elite and forced non-Germans into subservient positions. In Danzig, many Mennonites benefitted from robbery and slavery. For instance, SS officers at the Stutthof concentration camp, built in 1939, formed an entire labor commando with 500 inmates to serve a Mennonite arms manufacturer, Gerhard Epp.14

Leadership of the Mennonite-owned Epp Firm that leased hundreds of Jews and other slave laborers from the Stutthof concentration camp to produce munitions for war. Owner Gerhard Epp is seated at center. Source: Rehaag, ed., Ostseebad Stutthof, 114.

Danzig Mennonites also contributed to Nazi conquests and rule further east. Numerous prominent Nazi administrators in Eastern Europe hailed from Danzig, and faith leaders could use personal connections to pursue their interests in neighboring regions. Church delegations met with Nazi officials in the new Wartheland province, helping to ease the integration of Mennonites from occupied Poland into the Nazi order.15 When Hitler invaded the USSR in 1941, Danzig’s Mennonites especially watched developments in Ukraine.16 35,000 Mennonites remained in the area. Two years later as the Red Army advanced, most of these evacuated westward. An SS officer with Danzig ties oversaw their resettlement from Ukraine.17

The SS temporarily housed two large groups of Mennonites from Ukraine in former mental institutions near Danzig. Nazis had killed 4,000 patents at these facilities, known as Konradstein and Konitz. Among the victims were 550 children with disabilities transported to Konradstein for poisoning by 1943.18 The Mennonite resettlers knew that previous inhabitants had been murdered.19 Church leaders from Danzig welcomed these refugees’ arrival. They worked closely with Nazi administrators to provide spiritual care. In May 1944, dozens of young people from Konradstein traveled to the Heubuden church for baptismal training. Elder Bruno Ewert inducted them into the faith a week later in a hall of the mental institution.20

Bruno Ewert (second row, seventh from left) baptized forty-seven Mennonite refugees from Ukraine at the former Konradstein mental institution, May 28, 1944. Source: Nachlaß Ernst Crous, Folder: Briefw. 1944, MFS.

Only one Mennonite from the Danzig region is known to have been imprisoned for resisting Nazism. The eldest son of a well-established Mennonite family, Hermann Epp had been arrested two months before Ewert baptized forty-seven young people in Konradstein. Epp’s attitudes toward Nazism were unusual in his family and among Danzig Mennonites generally. He had a history of communist sympathies and close friendships with Jews. In 1943, when his first child developed disabilities, Nazi officials forcibly took and euthanized the infant, possibly perpetrating this murder at Konradstein. Epp’s public bitterness landed him in the Stutthof concentration camp. Eventually released, he survived the Third Reich’s collapse.21


World War II’s end heralded the demise of the Mennonite communities around Danzig. In the last days of the war, much of Danzig’s population began a hectic evacuation westward. As Soviet forces advanced, Mennonites and others fled by ship to Denmark or through the countryside across pre-war borders with Germany. Bruno Ewert later recalled this time of terror. The evacuees “were plundered, the women of all ages were dishonored, many were taken captive, others suffered affliction and death. Families were brutally separated.”22 Ewert blamed Poles and Soviets for German suffering. He did not mention SS-led death marches from Stutthof, nor that Jewish deaths erased evidence of forced labor for Mennonites.23

A North American church aid organization, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), helped Mennonites from Danzig resettle in new homes. None wished or would have been allowed to return to their former residences, now located in the Soviet-dominated country of Poland. In 1945, MCC’s commissioner for refugee matters, C.F. Klassen of Canada, toured Europe to find displaced Mennonites. In Denmark, he met Bruno Ewert. This former elder of the Heubuden church had been working with fellow faith leaders to contact thousands of Mennonites refugees, and Ewert shared his list with Klassen.24 Over the next decade, MCC helped resettle thousands of Danzig Mennonites to Canada, Uruguay, and West Germany.

MCC leaders kept quiet about the Danzig Mennonites’ deep ties to Nazism. Aid workers privately called the number of former Nazis among the refugees “amazing.”25 The organization nevertheless sought to reintegrate this group into the international faith community. Before a Mennonite World Conference in the US in 1948, staff selected four delegates from Germany. They had difficulty finding any clergy from Danzig, however, who could meet visa qualifications.26 Previous Nazi Party membership precluded both short visits and emigration. MCC worked with faith leaders in North America who successfully lobbied Canada to accept Mennonite refugees from Danzig, beyond “the few who are not party members.”27

The history of Hitler’s Mennonite voters should be of substantial interest today. These Christians came from a tradition that professed peaceful coexistence. By the 1930s, they had become rabidly nationalist and antisemitic. Mennonite voters helped bring the Nazi Party to power in the Free City of Danzig, and when Hitler’s expansionism unified this territory with the Third Reich during World War II, they joined in the process of expropriation and genocide. Religious leaders claimed resistance and persecution after the war, but we can count the number of Danzig Mennonites jailed for anti-Nazi activities on one finger. Dealing openly and seriously with this past remains a task for Mennonites over seventy-five years later.

Ben Goossen is a fellow with the American Historical Association and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published with Princeton University Press. Thanks to Arnold Neufeldt-Fast, Frank Peachey, Alain Epp Weaver, and Madeline J. Williams for help with this essay.


1. Due to Danzig’s parliamentary system, the Nazi win on May 28, 1933, was more substantial (38 out of 72 seats in the Volkstag) than indicated by their razor-thin popular vote majority, which exceeded the 50% mark by only 267 ballots. Additional research is required to understand precisely how Mennonites contributed to the electorate. If they were registered at the same rate as other Danzigers, voted at the same rate, and chose parties in the same percentages as their neighbors, then Mennonites would have had about 3,438 registered voters; 3,230 would have voted; and 1,647 would have chosen the Nazis. However, the Nazi Party’s strong rural showing in Danzig suggests that these estimates may be low, a possibility affirmed by contemporary observers: “the overwhelming majority of German Mennonites were always nationally oriented and welcomed Hitler’s project with open arms.” Benjamin Unruh to D. Hege, July 28, 1933, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 2, folder 8, Mennonitische Forschungsstelle, Bolanden-Weierhof, Germany (hereafter MFS); “The majority of Mennonites welcomed the National Socialist seizure of power on January 30, 1933, in the German Reich and in May of the same year in Danzig.” Hermann Epp, “Die Westpreussischen Gemeinden von 1933 bis zum Untergang,” Der Mennonit 1, no. 1 (1948): 4.

2. On the Free City of Danzig, see Christoph Kimmich, The Free City: Danzig and German Foreign Policy, 1919-1934 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968); Herbert Levine, Hitler’s Free City: A History of the Nazi Party in Danzig, 1925-1939 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973); Dieter Schenk, Danzig 1930-1945: Das Ende einer Freien Stadt (Berlin: Ch. Links, 2013). The topic of Mennonites in the Free City of Danzig deserves more attention from historians. Important treatments include Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 507-508, 512-525; Steven Schroeder, “Selective Memory: Danziger Mennonite Reflections on the Nazi Era, 1945-1950,” in European Mennonites and the Holocaust, ed. Mark Jantzen and John Thiesen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020), 307-318. For works on Mennonites in the Danzig region prior to World War I, see Peter J. Klassen, Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772–1880 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010).

3. Gerhard Wolfrum suggested this language to Mennonite leader Benjamin Unruh in the spirit of advising Unruh how best to phrase a letter the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, with a specific request. Quoted in Benjamin Unruh to Gustav Reimer, January 12, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.

4. Bruno Ewert, “Four Centuries of Prussian Mennonites,” Mennonite Life 3 (April 1948): 15-16. Other Mennonite leaders from Danzig and nearby regions made similar exculpatory ex post facto claims, for instance falsely alleging that church leaders took “a very determined stand… against the advocates of anti-Semitism.” Emil Händiges, “The Catastrophe of the West Prussian Mennonites,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 24, no. 2 (1950): 126-127.

5. Quoted in Ewert, “Four Centuries of Prussian Mennonites,” 15. The views of this preacher, Gerhard Fast of Heubuden, appear to have been shared generally by Danzig’s Mennonite clergy. A conference of faith leaders from Danzig and nearby regions sent a telegram to Hitler on September 10, 1933, expressing “deepest thanks for the mighty revolution, which God has granted our nation through your energy.” Aron Mekelborger, “Bericht über die 4. Allgem. Westpr. Konferenz in Tiegenhagen am 10. September 1933,” Mennonitische Blätter, October 1933, 101.

6. C. Henry Smith, The Story of the Mennonites (Berne, IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1941), 345.

7. Quoted in Benjamin Unruh “Bericht über Verhandlungen im Warthegau im März 1944,” March 30, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS. On Greiser’s career in Danzig, see Catherine Epstein, Model Nazi: Arthur Greiser and the Occupation of Western Poland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 15-123. Danzig’s SA leader, Bruno Fricke, was moreover familiar with Mennonites abroad. He had lived in Latin America and published about a group in Paraguay. Bruno Fricke, “Das Drama der Sklaven im Chaco,” Münchener Beobachter, August 22, 1926.

8. See Imanuel Baumann, “Der Mennonit und Nationalsozialist Otto Andres (1902–1975),” Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 75 (2018): 87-99. Andres (who left the Mennonite church in 1929) also served as Commissioner for the county of Großes Werder, one of five major administrative regions of the Free City. His deputy, Cornelius Jansson, was a practicing Mennonite. Jansson took over administrative duties in Großes Werder when Andres was away, e.g., when he became the Lieutenant Governor (Stellvertreter-Gauleiter) of Danzig-West Prussia in late 1939. In this capacity, Jansson was involved in the expansion of the Stutthof concentration camp. Horst Gerlach, “The Final Years of Mennonites in East and West Prussia, 1943–45,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 66, no. 2 (1992): 239.

9. Of five SS officers in the Free City with the common Mennonite surname “Wiens,” only one listed Mennonite affiliation, and church records show that he remained unbaptized. See A3343, roll 243B, Captured German and Related Records, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, USA (hereafter NARA); Christian Neff, ed., Mennonitisches Adreßbuch 1936 (Karlsruhe, 1936), 202. By contrast, four rank-and-file SS men with the common Mennonite surname “Enss,” self-identified as Mennonite. See A3343-SM-C107, NARA. These preliminary findings conform to broader patterns among Christians in the SS. See Herbert F. Ziegler, Nazi Germany’s New Aristocracy: The SS Leadership, 1925-1939 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 87. Mennonite church leaders appear to have welcomed SS membership among congregants. When the SS denied membership to one Mennonite, faith leaders appealed directly to Himmler. Emil Händiges to Heinrich Himmler, August 12, 1938, Vereinigung, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jul.-Dez., MFS. In another case, the son of a preacher from southern Germany joined the SS “without problem by giving a Mennonite promise [rather than swearing an oath].” Benjamin Unruh to Gerhard Wolfrum, January 19, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.

10. See NSDAP membership files for elders Johannes Dyck II of Ladekopp (joined 1936), Bruno Enss of Orlofferfelde (joined 1936), Bruno Ewert of Heubuden (joined 1937), Johann Penner of Ladekopp (applied 1936 – no surviving membership card), Ernst Regehr of Rosenort (joined 1931), and Franz Regehr of Tiegenhagen (joined 1933), NARA. A Mennonite delegation to Nazi headquarters in Munich affirmed, “As a church we unconditionally support the party.” These delegates reported that in Danzig, “the great majority of elders and preachers are members of the party.” Gustav Reimer, “Bericht über die Verhandlung in Braunen Haus in München am 6.7.1938, betreffend die Regelung der Eidesfrage,” Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jul.-Dez., MFS. Internal church correspondence confirms: “numerous respected members of the Mennonite ministry wear the swastika on their breast with pride and joy as party members.” Emil Händiges to Daniel Dettweiler, Benjamin Unruh, Ernst Crous, Abraham Braun, and Gustav Reimer, June 23, 1938, Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jan.-Jun., MFS.

11. Gerlach, “The Final Years,” 240. Hitler spoke at this meeting with the Mennonite Walter Neufeldt, Commissioner of Marienburg County in East Prussia. In response to Hitler’s request for follow-up, Neufeldt gathered documents with help from church leaders Johannes Dyck II and Gustav Reimer and the non-Mennonite historian Erich Keyser.

12. The racial scientist Friedrich Keiter evaluated 386 Mennonites from the Rosenort, Orlofferfelde, Ladekopp, and Heubuden congregations in Danzig as well as from the Elbing and Markushof-Thiensdorf churches in East Prussia. He noted the “especially gracious obligingness of the Mennonites themselves,” thanking the Danzig elders Erich Göttner, Franz Regehr, and Johann Penner as well as Emil Händiges and Cornelius Dirksen of East Prussia. Friedrich Keiter, Rußlanddeutsche Bauern und ihre Stammesgenossen in Deutschland (Jena: Gustav Fischer, 1934), 2. Erich Keyser lauded Danzig Mennonites’ “special racial biological importance” and recommended further “detailed racial examination.” Erich Keyser, “Die Mennoniten im Weichselland,” Volk und Rasse 17, no. 4 (1942): 72-73.

13. The secretary of the Union of Mennonite Congregations in the German Reich explained this process to the Union’s two top officials: “I have experience approving (notarizing) ancestry passports in cases when they cannot be notarized by registry offices. It is probably the case for all ancestry passports that some ancestors can be notarized by the registry office, and others must be notarized by the appropriate church official. In our congregations, the church council is of course entitled to perform notarizations by affixing the congregational seal.” Abraham Braun to Emil Händiges and Ernst Crous, December 22, 1939, Vereinigung, folder: Briefw. 1939, MFS. In the Free City of Danzig, deacon Gustav Reimer of Heubuden became particularly active in notarizing Aryan papers for practicing as well as former Mennonites. According to Reimer, “none of the men from our circles who today hold leading positions in the economy or politics could have provided the necessary proof of Aryan ancestry without my assistance.” Gustav Reimer, “Fritz van Bergen-Kartei,” Mitteilungen des Sippenverbandes Danziger Mennoniten-Familien 8, no. 4/5 (1942): 128-130. He reported that without church records, “proving Aryan ancestry—especially for dates before 1800—would never have been possible.” Gustav Reimer, “Die Kirchenbücher der Menno. Gemeinden in West- und Ostpreussen,” Der Berg 7 (1940): 83. Ancestry documentation from before 1800 would only have been necessary for people in high party or state positions, such as SS officers.

14. On this “Epp Kommando,”see Jania Grabowska, Stutthof: Ein Konzentrationslager vor den Toren Danzigs (Bremen: Edition Temmen, 1995), 30, 55, 74; Günter Regaag, ed., Ostseebad Stutthof (Heimat-Dokumentation Stutthof, 1995), 114-115; Marek Orski, Niewolnicza praca więźniów obozu koncentracyjnego Stutthof w latach 1939-1945 (Gdańsk: Muzeum Stutthof w Sztutowie, 1999), 61, 136, 156-158, 167-168, 178, 236-239, 263, 294, 302; Danuta Drywa, The Extermination of Jews in Stutthof Concentration Camp (Gdańsk: Muzeum Stutthof w Sztutowie, 2004), 118; Danuta Drywa, “Stutthof – Stammlager,” in Der Ort des Terrors: Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager, vol. 6, ed. Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2007), 512; Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust,” 520-525. Epp was a member of the Mennonite church in Tiegenhagen. Neff, ed., Mennonitisches Adreßbuch, 205. Broader Mennonite involvement with the Stutthof camp requires further study. Lists of camp staff include surnames common among Danzig Mennonites, including Bartels, Berg, Classen, Dirks, Enss, Fast, Foth, Friese, Gortz, Haack, Hamm, Janson, Jansson, Jantz, Jantzen, Janz, Janzen, Löwen, Pauls, Peters, Ratzlaff, Reimer, Schröder, Thimm, Unrau, Vogt, Wall, Wedel, Wiebe, and Zimmermann. See the three-part staff list: Mirosław Gliński, “Załoga obozu koncentracyjnego Stutthof,” Stutthof: Zeszyty Muzeum 5 (1984): 188-216; 6 (1985): 97-120; 7 (1987): 203-234. These names might profitably be checked against Mennonite church lists.

15. After extensive exchange of correspondence, a Mennonite delegation met with Wartheland officials on January 22, 1942. Emil Händiges to Gausippenamt im Warthegau, August 31, 1944, Nachlaß Ernst Crous, folder: Briefw. 1944, MFS. After this meeting, SS officers in Wartheland identified Mennonites in the Americas as their preferred settlers. See Andreas Strippel, NS-Volkstumspolitik und die Neuordnung Europas: Rassenpolitische Selektion der Einwandererzentralstelle des Chefs der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD, 1939-1945 (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2011), 245. A lay Mennonite leader from the Lemberg church, Rudolf Dick, acquired affiliation with Wartheland’s Department for Ethnic Questions, where he advocated for Mennonites. Dick helped organize Benjamin Unruh’s meeting with Wartheland governor Arthur Greiser on March 16, 1944. In addition to welcoming Mennonites from Ukraine, Greiser expressed interest in “the planned resettlement of [Mennonites] from overseas, right after the end of the war.” Unruh “Bericht über Verhandlungen im Warthegau.” After Unruh’s trip, SS officers issued special instructions for handling Mennonite resettlers. Strippel, NS-Volkstumspolitik und die Neuordnung Europas, 247.

16. Two thirds of soldiers in a Wehrmacht division that fought around the Mennonite settlements in Ukraine were reportedly from Danzig, with some units being up to forty percent Mennonite. Gerlach, Die Russlandmennoniten, vol. 1 (Kirchheimbolanden: Selbstverlag, 1992), 90. Reports of invaders’ encounters with Mennonites in Ukraine include Günther Fieguth, “Volksdeutscher Aufbruch am Dniepr,” Danziger Vorposten,December 13, 1942; Agnes Epp, “Ein Geschenk des Führers an unsers Sippenangehörigen in der Ukraine,” Mitteilungen des Sippenverbandes Danziger Mennoniten-Familien 8, no. 3 (1942), 112-113; P.H., “Von unseren Siedlungen in der Ukraine,” Nachrichtenblatt des Sippenverbandes Danziger Mennoniten-Familien (December 1943): 2-3.

17. Benjamin Unruh testified after the war that Werner Lorenz, who headed the Ethnic German Office of the SS, had been “very well acquainted with the Mennonites from Danzig, and he knew the attitude of our church, and he respected our attitude, and he promised us all possible support.” “United States of America v. Ulrich Greifelt et al.,” December 17, 1947, M894, roll 4, NARA. Unruh took up regular contact with Lorenz after a personal audience with Himmler: “An extremely good relationship has developed between us and the high [Nazi] leaders. I may write and meet at any time in relation to Mennonite matters. We have agreed that Lorenz will personally work on our matters. He is constantly in contact with Himmler and [Horst] Hoffmeyer [an SS officer responsible for Mennonites in Ukraine].” Benjamin Unruh to Emil Händiges, January 22, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS.

18. Irena Sławińska and Franciszek Ścigała, “Kocborowo (Conradstein) Landesanstalt für psychische Kranke,” in Die Ermordung der Geisteskranken in Polen, 1939-1945, ed. Zdzisław Jaroszewski (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, 1993), 57-63; Volker Rieß, Die Anfänge der Vernichtung ‘lebensunwerten Lebens’ in den Reichsgauen Danzig-Westpreußen und Wartheland 1939/40 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1995), 23-53, 150-166; Maria Fiebrandt, Auslese für die Siedlergesellschaft: Die Einbeziehung Volksdeutscher in die NS-Erbgesundheitspolitik im Kontext der Umsiedlungen 1939-1945 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014), 293-297. For more background, see Doris Bergen, War & Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 129-165.

19. One boy reported hearing that previous inhabitants of the Konitz mental institution “had been ‘disposed of’ as being, in Hitler-perspective, ‘unworthy life.’” Waldemar Janzen, Growing Up in Turbulent Times: Memoirs of Soviet Oppression, Refugee Life in Germany, and Immigrant Adjustment to Canada (Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2007), 62.

20. Gustav Reimer to Christian Neff, May 26, 1944, Christian Neff Nachlaß, Folder: Briefwechsel 1944, MFS.

21. Christiana Epp Duschinsky, “Mennonite Responses to Nazi Human Rights Abuses: A Family in Prussia/Danzig,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 32 (2014): 87-89. See also Gerlof Homan, “From Danzig to Down Under: A Mennonite-Jewish Family’s Escape from the Nazis to Australia,” Mennonite Historical Bulletin 73, no. 1 (2012): 13-18. Mennonite church leaders’ attitudes toward Nazi euthanasia policies require additional research. Other faith groups exhibited substantial opposition to euthanasia, and at least one Mennonite preached a sermon opposing it. James Irvin Lichti, Houses on the Sand? Pacifist Denominations in Nazi Germany (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 79. However, faith leaders’ sympathies appear to have been limited. Benjamin Unruh worked with colleagues to help keep most Mennonite refugee families from Ukraine together, but when SS agents told him disabled members could not be settled in Wartheland with other Mennonites, he did not press the matter. Benjamin Unruh, “Bericht über meine zweite Reise in den Warthegau,” July 17, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.

22. Ewert, “Four Centuries of Prussian Mennonites,” 17.

23. 41,500 prisoners had died in the main Stutthof camp or its satellite facilities between 1939 and 1945. Another 21,500 died during the evacuation in the last weeks of the war. Forty-three percent of all Stutthof inmates killed were Jews, and the vast majority of these died during the war’s final year. Drywa, “Stutthof – Stammlager,” 520.

24. Ewert, “Four Centuries of Prussian Mennonites,” 18.

25. Peter Goertz to Emil [Unknown] and Rachel [Unknown], November 15, 1947, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence October-December 1947, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, USA.

26. Two of the four individuals MCC staff had originally chosen turned out to be former Nazis. When MCC workers tried to replace these delegates, they found the refugee group from Danzig-West Prussia “apparently has no non-party members among its active ministers in the western zones of Germany at the present time.” Harold Bender to Orie Miller, P.C. Hiebert, and H.A. Fast, March 13, 1948, IX-06-03, box 64, folder 35/73, Mennonite Central Committee Archives, Akron, Pennsylvania, USA (hereafter MCCA). MCC staff thus worked with many former Nazis, although they praised the anti-Nazi Hermann Epp and hired him for editorial work: “He is the one Mennonite from West Prussia, or even in all Germany, so far as I know, who suffered for his anti-Nazi convictions, and spent some time in prison…. He, alone of all the West Prussian refugees [i.e. from Danzig-West Prussia] in Denmark, has been classified as an Allied D.P. [Displaced Person], and consequently has received freedom and different treatment.” Harold Bender to C.F. Klassen and Robert Kreider, October 25, 1947, IX-06-03, box 55, folder 29/147, MCCA.

27. “MCC Gronau Annual Report 1950,” December 1, 1950, IX-19-16.3, box 1, folder 9/27, MCCA. When 62 Danzig Mennonites applied for Canadian visas as a test case, 35 were denied due to past party membership. Sponsors in Canada assessed that, since “most Danziger were connected with the party,” any large-scale migration to Canada would require changing rules that barred Nazis. J.J. Thiessen, “Bericht des Vorsitzenden der Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization für die erweiterte Boardsitzung,” March 1, 1951, IX-19-9, box 3, folder 2/21, MCCA.

MCC at 100: Mennonites, Service, and the Humanitarian Impulse

University of Winnipeg’s Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies invites all to attend a free virtual conference “MCC at 100: Mennonites, Service, and the Humanitarian Impulse.” This three-day conference running from September 30 to October 2 brings together more than three dozen presentations that cover diverse aspects of Mennonite Central Committee’s 100 year history ranging from famine relief in Ukraine in the 1920s to the relief agency’s role in peace-building, rural development and refugee movements across the globe. A featured evening session on September 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, reflects on “MCC and Indigenous-settler relations in Turtle Island.”  Attendees can register for the conference and view a full program at https://mennonitestudies.uwinnipeg.ca/events/   

Not so Utopian? The Moral Economy of Communal Property

Martin Lutz

Thomas More’s “little, true book, not less beneficial than enjoyable, about how things should be in a state and about the new island Utopia” – more commonly known as just Utopia – imagined a society based on common property, with full equality, no poverty, and an abundance of daily necessities for all. First published in 1516, this fictitious tale outlined a seemingly perfect commonwealth, providing a stark contrast to contemporary economic inequality and social misery.1

(Utopia Thomas More (1518 November))

How could Utopia’s citizens achieve such a phenomenal economic performance leading to seemingly universal welfare? There was no idleness, for one, as everyone was expected to work and contribute to society’s well-being. As the character Raphael Hythloday explains to his puzzled listeners, “if they all were put to work—and useful work at that—you can easily see how little time would be enough and more than enough time to produce all the goods required for human needs and conveniences.”2 Moreover, Utopians did not pursue their own interest in their economic activity but tried to serve the general need. But it was especially the principle of common property that allowed the island to establish such a beneficial commonwealth. As Hythloday summarizes:

For elsewhere they always talk about the public good but they are concerned with their own private welfare; here [in Utopia], where there is no private property, everyone works seriously for the public good. And for good reason in both places, for elsewhere is there anyone who does not know that unless he looks out for his own personal interest he will die of hunger, no matter how flourishing the commonwealth may be; therefore necessity causes him to think he should watch out for his own good, not that of others, that is, of the people. On the other hand, here, where everything belongs to everyone, no one doubts that (as long as care is taken that the public storehouses are full) nothing whatever will be lacking to anyone for his own use. For the distribution of goods is not niggardly; no one is a pauper or a beggar there, and though no one has anything, all are rich.3

How utopian is such an economic world in the context of modern capitalism, an age usually associated with individual profit maximization, competitive markets, self-interest and greed? In other words, is it at all possible for the infamous homo economicus to break out from the real world to create something even vaguely similar to Thomas More’s Utopia?

A rare glimpse into the diary of a German traveler to the American and Canadian West in the years 1930-31 offers such an alternative perspective. It was in the midst of the Great Depression that hit Germany even harder then North America, inflicting political turmoil and contributing to the rise of the Nazi Party. The diary’s first entry dates from July 18, 1930, the day when German Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg dissolved the Weimar Republic’s last parliamentary government. The following election campaign was marked by ever increasing unemployment rates, strong antisemitic and anti-democratic sentiment from the extremist left and right. In the September election, the Nazi party won a landslide victory, a key milestone on Hitler’s ascent to political power that he finally achieved in January 1933.

The lone German traveler, who sympathized with Christian socialism and who was a staunch pacifist, thus had much to ponder on his journey. With his home country in turmoil and witnessing the Great Depression’s disastrous impact on America, his final destination must have appeared to him like a true Utopia. Nestled in the South Dakota plains, the visitor experienced the vision of a small-scale society based on communal property. There, all able-bodied members worked, including women and older children, contributing to the community’s overall welfare.4 In this setting, the communities produced sufficiently to sustain their membership, and it seemed to serve their commonwealth well. The traveler’s diary does not report a single issue that plighted Depression-era America: neither starvation, homelessness, unemployment, nor social deprivation.

It does probably not to come to the surprise of this blog’s readers that the communities in question were the Hutterite Bruderhöfe, scattered across the Northern Plains in the United States and Canada. The traveler was Eberhard Arnold, who had experimented with communal living in the 1920s and founded the Rhön Bruderhof in 1926. His trip to America served the purpose of connecting the newly founded community in Germany to the historical Hutterite church. Being well versed in Anabaptist history and belief, Arnold enthusiastically wrote that “[u]p till today the complete communism in production and consumption of every single Bruderhof […] and also the absolute unity of faith of all 35 Bruderhöfe is as good as completely unshaken; one can almost say is preserved absolutely pure.”5 This “purity” of the Bruderhof community was firmly based on Anabaptist-Hutterite religious principles, in particular the central tenant to forgo individual property and to “have all things common” (Acts 4:32).

The Hutterite communal economics not only provides a seemingly stark contrast to its capitalist surroundings; it also exemplifies how moral values decisively shape economic thinking, institutions and practice. This is the core of the current scholarly debate on moral economy, an interdisciplinary field of research that has grown from humble beginnings to prominence in the last decades.6

In The Moral Economists,7 intellectual historian Tim Rogan places the debate’s origin to T.H. Tawney, a British economic historian who published the influential book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism in 1926. Tawney found much at fault with modern capitalism, and it is in the context of his fundamental moral critique that he referred to Thomas More’s Utopia. Tawney was no mere academic confined to his ivory tower. He engaged in workers’ education, sympathized with Christian socialism and was politically active. Likely Tawney never learned about the Hutterites; otherwise he surely would have been keenly interested in this form of Christian communism.

(Mennonite Church USA Archives @ Flickr Commons)

Other academics, however, took note of the Hutterite communal economy. One was historian Victor Peters who in the 1965 book All Things Common provided one of the first systematic analyses of the Hutterite economic way of life in the context of modern American capitalism. It is no coincidence that the book’s opener immediately refers to Thomas More’s Utopia, for Peters considered the Hutterite Bruderhof as

literally utopian, for it was Thomas More who wrote: “For what can be more rich than to live joyfully and tranquilly without any worry, not fearful for his own livelihood, nor vexed and troubled with his wife’s importunate complaints, not dreading poverty to his sons, nor anxious about his daughter’s dowry? But instead to be secure about the livelihood and happiness of their wives, children, grandchildren, and their posterity which they handsomely assume will be a long time.”8

And yet, not all seems to have been as ideal and idealistic in practice. Twenty-five years before Peters’ scholarly account, Eberhard Arnold admiringly wrote about the impressive agricultural operations he observed, including a “very large mill,” a “gigantic thresher” and “the most modern motors.” While this sophisticated (and likely quite expensive) modern equipment at first glance appeared to be highly beneficial for improving efficiency in production, a somewhat puzzled Arnold also noted a counter perspective. It was voiced by an elder at Rockport Bruderhof who did not praise the progress, but rather was worried about decay, lamenting “the no longer Hutterian school, the economic rationalization of the Bruderhöfe, the influence of the world and diminishing unity in the style of life and the waning influence of elders.”9

From Eberhard Arnold’s perspective, trying to find an escape from the troubled circumstances in Germany, his puzzlement seems understandable. At the same time, the Rockport elder’s concern is highly plausible from a more distant analytical viewpoint. By 1930, American Hutterites were far from isolated, even if their remote settlement location would appear to be. The Bruderhöfe were instead tightly connected with their environment, particularly in economic terms. Hutterites produced for the market and were in turn susceptible to volatile prices, took out loans, bought machinery, and in many other ways relied on exchange with the outside world.

It thus should not surprise us that Hutterites were confronted with beliefs, ideologies, and rationales that competed with or were in direct opposition to their own Anabaptist beliefs. How should a Hutterite discern the logic of economic growth, profit-maximization, expansion, and efficiency gains in a competitive environment? How could Hutterite moral values be compatible with the requirements of modern capitalism? And how would this eventually shape the seeming “purity” of the Bruderhof community that Arnold so greatly admired in the following decades? Answers to these questions, I am convinced, will not only enhance our understanding of Hutterites in the context of the modern world. It would also offer a viable contribution to the much wider debate on the relationship between moral values and the economy.


1. It is important to note, however, that Utopia was not without flaws, at least from a 21st century perspective. These include the institution of slavery, as well as imperial wars of aggression against the island’s neighbors. Katherine Hill recently addressed More’s Utopia in a different context in her post on this blog: https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/12/21/utopian-imaginations/

2. Thomas More, Utopia, with the assistance of Jerry Harp, and Clarence Miller, Second edition (New Haven, Conn, London: Yale University Press, 2014), 63.

3. More, Utopia, 129–30.

4. Eberhard Arnold’s Diary, 1973, Hist Mss I-447, Box 20, Goshen Archive, 6.

5. Eberhard Arnold’s Diary, 170.

6. From the extensive current literature see for example: Ute Frevert, “Moral Economies, Present and Past: Social Practices and Intellectual Controversies,” in Moral Economies, ed. Ute Frevert et al., Geschichte und Gesellschaft Heft 026 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2019); Norbert Götz, “’Moral Economy’: Its Conceptual History and Analytical Prospects,” Journal of Global Ethics 11, no. 2 (2015); Andrew Sayer, “Approaching Moral Economy,” in The Moralization of the Markets, ed. Nico Stehr, Christoph Henning and Bernd Weiler, first paperback printing (New Brunswick, NJ, London: Transaction Publishers, 2010).

7 Tim Rogan, The Moral Economists: R.H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E.P. Thompson, and the Critique of Capitalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

8 Victor Peters, All Things Common: The Hutterian Way of Life (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1965), 102–3 A few years before this book, Peters had already introduced this idea in an article to the Manitoba Pageant, 7 (1961), 1: http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/pageant/07/hutterites.shtml. A more recent contribution is by Thomas Nauerth in the Plough Quarterly magazine, published by Bruderhof’s Plough Publishing House, the https://www.plough.com/en/topics/justice/politics/finding-utopia.

9 Eberhard Arnold’s Diary, 170.

Mementos from Around the World: New Sources from A.D Wenger’s Six Months in Bible Lands

Regina Wenger

I recently pulled from my bookshelf my great-grandfather A.D. Wenger’s account of his globe-trekking journey in 1899-1900: Six Months in Bible Lands and Around the World in Fourteen Months. It’d been a while since I read it, but I should have known that as a historian it was impossible for me to just read a primary source for fun. It sparked an interest to play with some digital history tools, but also to highlight some new material sources that I discovered in my extended family’s possession.

Amos Daniel (A.D) Wenger was born in 1867, just north of Harrisonburg, Virginia and under the shadow of the Civil War. After several terms of elementary school, he completed a teachers certificate at Bridgewater Normal School.1 However, rather than teaching, Wenger followed a call to preaching and farming which took the twenty-two year old out west. In addition to traveling around Mennonite communities, he trained at Moody Bible Institute, received ordination, and inaugurated an evangelistic ministry.2 Feeling a call to preach to young people, Wenger ended his western sojourn and headed to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.3 There he gained a reputation as an excellent preacher, despite his controversial tactic of holding protracted meetings.4 While in the Lancaster area, he wed Mary Hostetter of Millersville on July 1, 1897. She died suddenly of kidney disease a little over a year into their marriage. The money provided by her inheritance financed Wenger’s trip around the world.

Travelling abroad was a luxury afforded to very few at the turn of the twentieth century. In keeping a record of his travels, Wenger likely hoped to educate the Mennonite community still relatively isolated by theology and circumstance. Donald Kraybill observes that Wenger’s account of his travels carried the assumptions and perspectives of a rural American Mennonite. Each identifier—rural, American, and Mennonite—carried the power to shape his narrative.5 Race also shaped Wenger’s account as his voice vacillated between traveller, pastor, and professor. He felt the weight of “the white man’s burden.”6 Though there is a lot to unpack in his language and presuppositions, I want to spend the remainder of this post discussing new information that caught my attention in my re-reading of Six Months in Bible Lands.

The locations where Wenger traveled fascinated. So, I started to track them using Google Maps. You can view his journey here. Whenever possible, I included dates and modes of transportation. Some places—like the Holy Land—weren’t surprising stops on his journey. However, some omissions caught my attention. I wondered, why not visit Mennonite communities in the Russian Empire? In the narrative, Wenger explained that though he desired to travel there, restrictive visa practices and the threat of having papers and possessions taken stifled any appeal to travel into the realm of Tsar Nicholas II.7 Regardless of their denominational background, Wenger desired to draw his readers’ attention to missionaries and their activities around the globe.8 Not only was this interest an outgrowth of his premillennial theology, but he also sought to bring Mennonites into the missionary movement during its rapid expansion at the turn of the twentieth century. These gospel workers also served as Wenger’s most frequent companions during the various legs of his journey.9 He could continually count on them for hospitality and an assessment of a country’s conditions and indigenous peoples.10

The extent of Wenger’s travels meant that he constantly needed to exchange currencies. On a couple of occasions, he commented on money changers or the power of loose change in poor countries.11 While outside of Shanghai he and a travelling companion tried to be generous but also escape the people clamoring for money. He stated,

Just before leaving Shanghai I had gotten about ten cents worth of Chinese money called “cash” which I intended to bring home. It takes sixteen of those coins to make one cent of our money so I had about one hundred and sixty pieces of money in my pockets. Seeing no way of escape from our dilemma for a time I suddenly thought of a plan to draw them away. Running my hand into my pocket and grasping about a hundred of these cheap coins, I arose to my feet and threw them as far behind the carriage as I could.12

This passage and Wenger’s other discussions of money illustrate how he viewed foreign currencies during his travels: with a frugal nonchalance. He had the finances to respond to situations like this one with spontaneous generosity, but he liked a good price and did not appreciate attempts to extort travellers. The story from China also provides useful information about exchange rates and Wenger’s intensions for his remaining “cash.” Despite dispensing some of it, he indeed brought home coins from his travels. They are currently in my parents’ possession. I sorted them by country and marked the chronological range of the coinage.13 They provide another method of mapping Wenger’s journey around the globe. By far the greatest number of coins that returned home with him came from China. Also of note are the coins he acquired in the late Ottoman Empire. It presents a turn-of-the century geopolitical snapshot in the form of currency.

A.D. Wenger not only returned from his travels with money, but he also kept other artifacts to show Mennonite communities when he shared about his journey. Among the items are natural specimens such as whale baleen and pinecones from the cedars of Lebanon. They reveal not only his personality and interests, but practical considerations as well. Attention to flora and fauna meshed with Wenger’s farming background, but also those of his audience.14 He also kept an oil lamp from the Holy Land and scroll with either Chinese or Japanese characters. These items handled transport over long distances well. Traveling with both coins and interesting objects, however, once got him into trouble. On September 26, 1899 he attempted to depart Egypt for India. Customs officials discovered possible contraband. He recalled,

They found a piece of ore and a piece of lava that aroused their suspicion. The lava had a coin of money imbedded in it. The coin had been pressed into the molten lava when I was on Mount Vesuvius and when it cooled and hardened I carried it for a relic. They had been looking for makers of counterfeit money and now they thought they had one of them. The coin and ore pointed that way, they thought; so they held me prisoner and sent for a higher officer.15

Eventually his explanation satisfied the officer who released him and Wenger continued, though delayed, onto India. Wenger’s artifacts, supplemented by his stories, provided his audiences with tangible windows into foreign lands to which they were unlikely to travel.

His experiences abroad, plus his evangelistic ministry, provided Wenger with ample speaking opportunities upon his return to the United States in March 1900. However, contracting polio in October 1900 inhibited his mobility and left him unable to accept any preaching invitations for several months.16 Only a month before getting ill, he married Anna May Lehman after a brief courtship. The family moved to Fentress (Chesapeake), Virginia in 1907, where Wenger continued to farm while preaching and involving himself in building Mennonite education. He served as president of Eastern Mennonite School (University) beginning in 1922, a post he held until his sudden death in 1935.

The money and artifacts were in the possession of my grandfather, Chester, A.D.’s youngest son, until Grandpa’s death in 2020. The family intends to have some of the coins professionally appraised before donating them, and the other objects, to an archive. There other researchers, less close to the subject, may utilize them to examine an American Mennonite’s perspective of the peoples of the world at the turn of the twentieth century.


1. John C. Wenger and Mary W. Kratz, A.D. Wenger (Harrisonburg, VA: Park View Press, 1961), 7. Now known as Bridgewater College, the school is located in Bridgewater, Virginia.

2. Regina Wenger, “Illumination in the West: A.D. Wenger’s Theology of Revival, Dispensationalism, and Mission” (unpublished manuscript, November 7, 2013).

3. John Landis Ruth, The Earth is the Lord’s: A Narrative History of Lancaster Mennonite Conference (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 724–25.

4. Mark R. Wenger, “Ripe Harvest: A. D. Wenger and the Birth of the Revival Movement in Lancaster Conference,” Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage, April 1981.

5. Donald B. Kraybill, Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017), 3-6.

6. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands and Around the World in Fourteen Months (Doylestown, PA: Joseph B. Steiner, 1901), 480, 494-495.

7. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 53.

8. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 155, 455-483.

9. A. D. Wenger, “Unfulfilled Prophecies,” in Outlines and Notes, ed. John S. Coffman. (Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Publishing Company, 1898), 52–59; Harold S. Bender, “The History of Millenial Theories,” Eastern Mennonite University Historical Library (Harrisonburg, VA), 10; George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 68; See: See for example, A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 135, 494.

10. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 153, 442.

11. See for example, A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 341-342, 528.

12. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 521.

13. A few of the coins in the image are chronological and geographic outliers Wenger’s trip. I suspect that they belonged to his daughter, Rhoda E. Wenger, who served as a missionary in East Africa during the mid-twentieth century.

14. Kraybill, 3-6.

15. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 445. The lava, though now absent of the coin, may be seen in the center of the above photograph of the objects Wenger brought back from his journey.

16. Wenger and Kratz, 20.

Disputing Dispossession

After the 1694 expulsion and dispossession of Mennonites from the city of Rheydt, negotiations were both urgent and extensive. (For the narrative of this event, as reported by Rheydt Mennonites themselves, please see my post from May 4, 2021.) The protracted aftermath – hundreds of letters, petitions, and memos sent between Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm and his commissioners, representatives of the Dutch States General, King William III of England and Stadtholder of the Netherlands, and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold III – ultimately demonstrated a small but significant rhetorical space that had been carved out through years of piecemeal economic toleration.1 Indeed, these high-level epistolary discussions often included appeals for de facto tolerance based on Mennonite economic usefulness or political obedience.

Though decisions happened primarily in these diplomatic debates, other Mennonite groups also took it upon themselves to urge intercession on behalf of the Rheydt community. These appeals often turned upon an argument for a shared Christianity, while at the same time defending against ongoing accusations of heresy – and we’ll look at one such letter today. The collective “baptism-minded” [tauffgesindt] community of the duchy of Cleve had been involved in raising funds to free the imprisoned Rheydt Mennonites in the summer of 1694, and subsequently petitioned their elector, Frederick III of Brandenburg, to plead on the Rheydt community’s behalf. They began a September 1694 letter by declaring “that those, who are of our opinion in the matter of baptism but otherwise faithful to Christian beliefs based on God’s Word” had been “attacked without warning.”2 This affront had occurred despite the community’s adherence to a faith that did “not in any way challenge the common ground of Christian religion.”3 These Mennonites were those for whom “the carrying of weapons among them was held to be prohibited, but that nothing else was sought other than to live a quiet and peaceful life under their Christian authority, to honor themselves by honest dealings, to live in Christian love and unity with their neighbors and to contribute to the common good all that appertains to a faithful subject and citizen,” and that such obvious virtues had led, “not only in England and Holland but also in various provinces of the Holy Roman Empire [to]…freedom of residence, trade and commerce like other Christian inhabitants.”4 They therefore insisted on a common Christianity, but ultimately grounded their appeal for toleration in practical, economic successes in nearby communities and territories.

This mix of theological inoffensiveness and practical economic appeal became even more clear as the Cleve community dealt with the issue of the Peace of Westphalia. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia had redefined the relationship between Christian communities, Christian authority, and the Holy Roman Empire. Calvinism now joined Lutheranism and Catholicism as legitimate official religions, and, importantly, rulers who mandated one were no longer allowed to expel dissenting believers from the other two groups. Mennonites, however, were not included in this expansion of imperial toleration. The Cleve community acknowledged that they had heard others talk about their exclusion from the treaty: “In the meantime, we hear that we, not belonging to the three religions admitted to the Roman Empire, are to be feared as heretics and therefore our property, wherever it may be, is to be confiscated.”5 The community was forced to acknowledge the invectives thrown against them, and the economic penalty that had long attended charges of heresy.6 The Cleve community therefore identified the vulnerability that their extra-Westphalian status accentuated, even as they pushed back against the conflation of non-tolerated and “heretical” groups. They stopped short, however, of making any claims on Westphalian identity: “So it should be noted that we are not looking for any rights dedicated to these three religions in the same statutes, but rather we are asking for nothing more than what we, under your Serene Elector’s Merciful protection live peacefully…so that our mere things, without some fault of our own, may not be taken.”7 This plea was underscored by the accusation that the commerce available even to “heathen, Turks and Jews” had become impossible for Mennonites – a claim that they were owed at least the same, if not more, protection than these other exogenous groups.

The Cleve Mennonites’ insistence on their common Christian status under the Peace of Westphalia is striking, especially when considered next to their still-requisite denial of any connection to the 1534/5 Kingdom of Münster. The community was unsurprisingly explicit in its denunciation, acknowledging “a certain sect of people, which one calls re-baptizers, that also committed varying severe errors, and in particular have tried to bring about turmoil and insurrection [unruhe und Emperung] in ecclesiastical and secular rule […] out of which formed in the city of Münster a terrifying example.”8 These “pernicious heretics” had been dealt with justly according to the laws of the empire, the Cleve community emphasized, with strict punishments doled out to both ringleaders and followers.9 It was moreover well known, they argued, that Menno and all peaceable Anabaptists who followed him had willingly chosen a faith and a life that distinguished themselves from their “unruly” brethren – and exonerated them, in turn, from these lingering accusations of heresy. “[Menno] does not have the slightest community with those of Münster,” they argued, and “instead they have as their first and main maxim that they do not interfere with matters of spiritual or secular rule, and prove themselves to be against all turmoil [unruhe].”10 This letter from the “baptism minded” of the duchy of Cleve was longer than most other petitions in the aftermath of the Rheydt dispossession, perhaps indicating both the gradually increasing space for, and the ongoing character of, negotiations around Anabaptist identity.

Rheydt Mennonites would be portrayed by secular authorities throughout the negotiations as either a heretical threat or an economic boon, or perhaps some mixture of the two. This malleability in their identity had proved essential to their survival thus far, but also inherent to their persecution. Although the targeting of a flourishing religious minority group was far from a unique tactic, in the case of dispossessed Rheydt Mennonites it occasioned another semi-public discussion about who was and was not a Christian – and would eventually develop into a debate over who was and was not a “Protestant.”


1. Achieved through the exchange of protection fees [Schutzgeld] for the issuance of protection letters [Schutzbriefe]. For an example of Schutzgeld payments as recorded in the registers of the city of Emden, please see my post from May 28, 2020.

2. Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz[GSPK], I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 6r.

3. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 7r.

4. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 7v.

5. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 8v.

6. The 1532 Constitutio Criminalis Carolina had codified laws concerning heresy, criminality, and property for application within the Holy Roman Empire. For the language of the Carolina, see “Appendix B. CONSITUTIO CRIMINALIS CAROLINA,” in Prosecuting crime in the Renaissance: England, Germany, France, edited and by John H. Langbein (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), 259-308.

7. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 9r.

8. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 6v.

9. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 7r.

10. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 7r.

“Oh, that it had pleased the Lord that I might have brought you up”: Motherhood in the Martyrs’ Mirror

While I was completing my doctoral coursework, I read Steven Ozment’s When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe, in which he described the magisterial reformers’ exaltation of marriage as an opportunity for women to take up their roles as mothers of the house, a position of “high authority and equal respect” to that of the patriarch.1 While Lyndal Roper and others have criticized Ozment’s rosy portrayal of Reformation-era gender relations, which failed to account for the vast gulf between the rights and privileges enjoyed by husbands and those afforded to wives, there is no doubt that many sixteenth-century Protestant writings emphasized marriage and motherhood as the primary opportunity for Christian faithfulness offered to most women.2 As wives and as mothers, they could obey the Scriptures and bring up their children in the fear of the Lord. Catechizing their own children was the primary mode of spiritual authority available to them.

At the same time, for my Radical Reformation field, I was reading Adam Darlage’s article on sixteenth-century Hutterite women, which emphasized the communal nature of child-rearing in Hutterite colonies. Hutterite mothers were not expected to be their children’s primary spiritual teachers—instead, children were housed separately from their parents as soon as they were weaned and received both spiritual and practical instruction in junior and then senior schools run by the community.3 Reading these works in parallel made me wonder whether sixteenth-century Anabaptists had qualitatively different views of motherhood than their magisterial counterparts. On the one hand, the radical reformers, like the magisterial reformers, rejected celibacy as an ideal and encouraged marriage instead. And the Swiss Brethren and the Mennonites, at least, would not have objected to mothers viewing childrearing and raising their children in the faith as an important spiritual task. But, at the same time, Anabaptist women faced a far more imminent threat of martyrdom than most other Protestant women, and so motherhood was, at best, their second-most pressing spiritual challenge. Their obedience to Christ was more likely to involve hostile interrogations and the threat of death, and to be willing to suffer death or imprisonment for Christ was of necessity to be willing to leave one’s family behind and to entrust the raising of one’s children to someone else.

Anna Jansz giving up her son Isaiah to a Rotterdam baker before her execution. Image source: https://martyrstories.org/anna-jansz/

In another life, I might have written a dissertation on sixteenth-century Anabaptist ideals and realities of motherhood. In the end I didn’t, though I think someone should! But for now, I thought I’d begin by looking at depictions of motherhood in one of the best-known early modern Anabaptist sources: the Martyrs Mirror. The first depiction of motherhood in the Martyrs Mirror that came to my mind was the iconic image of Anna Jansz, who was drowned in Rotterdam in 1539, searching the crowd for someone to raise her son Isaiah. The engraving shows the baker who finally stepped forward and agreed to raise him. He also agreed to give him a letter she had written to him, and the text of the letter became part of the Dutch martyrological tradition that culminated in the Martyrs Mirror.4 Also interspersed throughout the text are letters from five other mothers about to be martyred—Soetgen van den Houte, Maeyken Boosers, Maeyken van Deventer, Maeyken Wens, and Janneken Munsdorp—written to their children, in a last attempt to provide them with spiritual guidance. Soetgen and the three Maeykens left behind children old enough to remember them, and even to write back, so their letters reaffirmed values they had already taught their children over the years. They were deeply conscious that, after years of trying to teach their children, they were now setting the ultimate example by dying for their faith. They hoped that their children, too, would choose to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Christ on the narrow path that led to life. They took great comfort in the children who wrote back to them, confirming their intentions to live faithful lives. Maeyken Boosers even sent her children’s letters back to them, as a reminder of the promises they had made to her.5 The content of the children’s letters, and the faith most of their children adopted as adults, is not known, but the Martyrs’ Mirror does relay the story of Maeyken Wens’ fifteen-year-old son Adriaen, who went to witness her execution along with his youngest brother Hans (whom Maeyken, in the most touching part of her letter, had instructed Adrien to hug now and again on her behalf). He fainted when the pyre was lit, and when he came to only ashes remained. He sifted through them, found the tongue screw her torturers had used, and kept it as a memento. By the time this account was published in the mid-seventeenth century, Maeyken had several surviving grandchildren who had been named in her honor.6

Anna Jansz and Janneken Munsdorp, on the other hand, were both writing to babies so young that their letters would be their children’s only memory of them. Anna instructed Isaiah to take the fear of the Lord as his father and wisdom as his mother, a phrase that surely resonated with others as the letter circulated, since Maeyken van Deventer repeated it to her children 34 years later.7 While the rest of Anna’s letter was mostly filled with apocalyptic language about the evils of the current age and exhortations to live a righteous life, Janneken’s letter gave voice more fully to the anguish of being separated from such a young child and the deep pain she felt at not being able to live long enough to raise her. She and her husband Hans had been married less than a year when they were both apprehended, and he preceded her in death when the authorities discovered she was pregnant, since it was customary to wait until after pregnant women had delivered their children to execute them.8 She recounted how difficult it was to experience pregnancy in prison, knowing this separation was imminent. “Now that I have abided the time, and borne you under my heart with great sorrow for nine months, and given birth to you here in prison, in great pain, they have taken you from me,” she lamented.9 She held on to a sliver of hope, almost despite herself, that God might yet miraculously deliver her and return her to her daughter, but she realized that this was not the most likely outcome. “Oh, that it had pleased the Lord, that I might have brought you up; I should so gladly have done my best with respect to it; but it seems that it is not the Lord’s will.”10 Since she could not bring her daughter up in the faith herself, she hoped for one of two outcomes: “that [God] will keep you, and you grow up in His fear, or that He will take you home in your youth.”11 In a letter to her sister, she confessed to a preference for the latter outcome, so that she might be reunited with her child even sooner.12

Janneken was not the only woman in the Martyrs Mirror to give birth while imprisoned and awaiting death. Five other women gave birth under similar circumstances: Christina Haring, a woman named Lyntgen, Lijsken Dircks, Mary Joris, and the unnamed wife of Adriaen Pan. Christina, Lijsken, and Adriaen’s wife were each executed after giving birth.13 Mary Joris died in childbirth, a fact that the account of her death interpreted as deliverance, and as for Lyntgen, “the pain of delivery so affected her, that she became utterly deranged in her mind; after this she laid for a long time at Amsterdam, in a little house, in which also died.”14 There is no doubt that this experience of pregnancy in the worst possible conditions, with the certain knowledge that only death and separation from their children awaited them, was deeply traumatic for these women.15

Mothers who nursed infants at the time of their arrest were sometimes able to keep the child with them in prison, though the authorities did not hesitate to use the child to punish the mother. The Martyrs’ Mirror recalls the story of Paul Vandruynen and his wife, who had a nine-month-old child with her in prison until the authorities took the child and had it baptized. Another woman,Claudine le Vettre, suffered increasingly harsh interrogations while nursing her infant in prison, and, when these tactics failed the authorities took the child away and gave it to a wet nurse in a last attempt to coerce her into recantation. This attempt was unsuccessful, but it was “the greatest affliction she suffered during her imprisonment.”16 Mothers of slightly older children likewise found separation from their families the hardest loss to contemplate as they faced martyrdom. A woman named Claesken, who left behind two daughters and a son, became indignant when her inquisitor accused her of being confused and insufficiently familiar with the New Testament. “Do you think,” she retorted, “that we run on uncertainties? We are not ignorant of the contents of the New Testament. We forsake our dear children, whom I would not forsake for the whole world, and we stake upon it all that we have. Should we run on uncertainties yet?”17 For Claesken, the fact that she and other Anabaptists were willing to do something as impossible as leaving behind their beloved children was proof that they had been imbued with the power of the Holy Spirit.18 In addition to the mothers I have detailed so far, the Martyrs Mirror mentions three more mothers of minor children who were imprisoned: Hadewijk of Leeuwarden, Levina of Ghent, and Grietgen de Raet. Hadewijk escaped and lived out the rest of her life in Emden, but Levina and Grietgen were both executed.19 Two mothers of Anabaptist ministers, Janneken Walraven and Sijntgen Vercoilgen were also mentioned, but it seems that their sons were already adults by the time they were martyred.20 It is, of course, likely that other women in the Martyrs Mirror left behind children who simply were not mentioned in the accounts of their deaths.

Finally, the Martyrs Mirror recounts five stories of mothers who were martyred alongside one of their children: the wife and son of a man named Arent Jacobs, Neeltgen and Trijntgen of Maastricht, Lijngten Joris and her daughter, who was named either Catharina or Trijntgen, the wife and daughter of a man named Hans de Ruyter, and Anneken Botson and her daughter Janneken. While most of these accounts are cursory, the story of Neeltgen and Trijntgen describes how the two women spoke encouraging words and strengthened each other’s resolve in prison.21 The story of Lijntgen and her daughter, meanwhile, shows how the authorities attempted to pit mother and daughter against each other in order to force a recantation. On the day of their execution, they brought the daughter out of earshot of the mother and tried to tell her that her mother had recanted and she should as well. Their ploy did not work and the two women were executed together.22

The Martyrs’ Mirror, of course, self-selects for women who, however much it broke their hearts to leave their children behind, ultimately felt that martyrdom was a higher calling than motherhood. They entrusted their children to God and went bravely to their deaths. If they wavered, if they even briefly considered recanting in order to return to their families, the sources have not preserved these doubts. Overwhelmingly, it seems, they felt that their greatest task as mothers was to set a good example of faithfulness for their children. If they denied Christ in order to be restored to their children, paradoxically, they would fail at this task. It would be interesting to see what less hagiographic sources reveal about women who recanted, and how many of them cited their children as a reason for doing so.


1 Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 54.

2 See Lyndal Roper, The Holy Household: Women, Religion, and Morals in Reformation Augsburg (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).

3 Adam Darlage, “Double Honor: Elite Hutterite Women in the Sixteenth Century,” Church History 79:4 (2010): 769.

4 Gerald Mast, “Anna Jansz,” Bearing Witness Stories Project, published 13 November 2015, https://martyrstories.org/anna-jansz/.

5 Thieleman J. Van Braght, The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, edited and translated by Joseph F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1950), 668.

6 Van Braght, 980-982.

7 Van Braght, 454; 979.

8 Van Braght, 985.

9 Van Braght, 984-985.

10 Van Braght, 985-986.

11 Van Braght, 984.

12 Van Braght, 988.

13 Van Braght, 441; 504; 618.

14 Van Braght, 483; 564.

15 Van Braght, 448.

16 Van Braght, 737.

17 Van Braght, 613.

18 Van Braght, 616.

19 Van Braght, 547; 549; 726.

20 Van Braght, 563; 740.

21 Van Braght, 743.

22 Van Braght, 887.

Les Frères mennonites au Québec : Le Lien, a voice for Francophone Mennonites

Les Frères mennonites (Mennonite Brethren) established a mission in Québec in 1961 when they were expelled from the Congo.1 An evangelistic fervour in the province saw a handful of congregations rapidly emerge to the north-east of Montreal, bolstering the presence of the Old Mennonites, the Fellowship Baptists and the Baptist Union churches. Using evangelistic methodology, charismatic leaders Ernie and Lydia Dyck sparked the establishment of new congregations. These new churches quickly grew to embrace several hundred young people who had converted in the evangelistic crusades that emerged in the wake of the massive cultural shifts spawned by the Quiet Revolution, Vatican II and the feminist movement.2 Historians and sociologists estimate that by 1984 there were 1000 men and women, mostly young, attending ten newly formed congregations.3

Print press became an important tool in furthering this mission. By 1980, the Mennonite Brethren Herald began to supplement their English and German bi-lingual publication with a monthly French insert, La publication françaisdu Herald.4 This journalistic enterprise gave voice to a new community. For historians, it provides a wealth of information about the development of the Mennonite church in Quebec. It is the voice of new converts who were growing into their identity as Christians and Mennonites. Initially it appears to have been an arm of the evangelism claiming Quebec, with its goal to edify and encourage new Christians. With news from the churches in Quebec, testimonies, inspirational messages and teachings for the Mennonite Christians in the province under the editorship of a young evangelistically-minded Quebecois leader Auguste Masson, it soon claimed its Quebecois identity with the name Le lien des Frères mennonites (The Mennonite Brethren Connection).5

Under new editorial leadership, Le Lien would become an important vehicle that allowed women’s voices to be heard.6 Claudette LeBlanc, who had converted under the influence of young evangelicals at the college in Ste-Therese, took the post after training at the Institute Biblique Béthel located in Sherbrooke. The mood of the paper quickly shifted as she gave opportunities for women to explore publicly what it meant to live as evangelical Christians in the fast changing culture of Quebec.7 The paper became a place where women could reflect on what it meant to be Christians in their context; it challenged readers on how they lived their lives as Christian women. Defending the increased volume of women’s voices, LeBlanc’s editorial comments in the February 1986 issue explained:

Un autre numéro sur les femmes, direz-vous! Pourquoi pas? Elles représentent souvent plus que la moitié de l’Église (53% chez nous) et leur rôle n’est pas encore clair pour tous. Il importe donc d’y rêfléchir ensemble.”
(Another issue on women, you say! Why not? They often represent more than half of the church and their role isn’t yet clear for everyone. It is necessary to reflect on this together).8

Coinciding with the naming of Annie Brosseau, another young female convert and graduate of Institute Biblique Béthel as editor, by 1988 Le lien expanded its evangelical voice to introduce the francophone constituency to the work of Mennonite Central Committee.9 The introduction of “Le MCC au Québec,” with an extensive interview of Debby Martin Koop, MCC Canada’s recently appointed representative in Quebec, set the stage for a new face for Quebec Mennonites. It was historic in its setting the stage for MCC’s relationship with the Mennonite Brethren.10 This unique relationship between MCC and the Mennonite Brethren as it involved in Quebec, notable for women’s leadership, is well worth further exploration. To conclude, I hope to develop our understanding further as I prepare for my contribution to the MCC at 100 conference coming up soon in fall 2021. I also hope that others will discover for themselves the rich potential that le Lien holds for historical inquiry.


1. Claudette LeBlanc, “’Nous louons le Seigneur!’” le lien des Frères mennonites Vol. 6, no. 2 (juillet-août 1987), 1-2.

2. For a clear outline of the developments of evangelicalism in Quebec during these years, see Richard Lougheed, “The Evangelical Revivals of the 1960s – 1980s,” in French-Speaking Protestants in Canada: Historical Essays, 191-206, edited by Jason Zuidema (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2011).

3. Ruth Dyck, “Le progrès de l’évangel dans la ‘Belle Province’” (26 september 1980), 1; see also Richard Lougheed Mennos in Quebec (Kitchener, Ontario : Pandora Press, forthcoming).

4. Ruth Dyck, “Rendez-vous à Winnipeg,” Publication français du Herald, Vol. 1, no. 1 (le 8 août 1980), 1.

5. “La tournée du trio d’IBL,” Le Lien (le 8 août 1980,), 3; (25 mars 1983), 8.

6. I have explored elsewhere the rich female culture that developed during this time. See “Le Comité des femmes inter-églises, 1978-1998: a compass for the women of l’église des frères mennonites du Québec,” Journal of Mennonite Studies Vol. 37 (2019), 105-18.

7. Claudette LeBlanc, “Jésus en moi,” Publication français du Herald (le 26 septembre 1980), 4.

8. Claudette LeBlanc, Le Lien (février 1986), Vol. 4, no. 8, 2.

9. Annie Brosseau, “Une Parole efficace,” Publication français du Herald (27 février 1981), 4; Le Lien Vol 9, No. 2 (juillet-août 1990), 3.

10. Claudette LeBlanc, “Le MCC au Québec, entrevue avec Debby Martin Koop,” Le Lien (May 1988), 4-5, 7.

From the Flat Files

Tucked away in the office of the Menno Simons Historical library is a flat file that has eleven drawers filled with various and sundry historical treasures. I thought it might be interesting to dive in and sample a few of the items housed therein.

The first item I wanted to highlight is a bill for two shillings and six-pence or half-a-crown printed in colonial Pennsylvania in 1772. 

Next is an announcement issued in March 1862 by Lt. Col. J.R. Jones at the behest of General Stonewall Jackson to muster the militia for the Confederate Army in Rockingham County. This announcement contains a provisio for conscientious objectors that states, “I am authorised to say to the Tunkers and Menonites [sic], that Gen. Jackson believes them to be sincere in their opposition to engaging in war, and will detail them as teamsters, etc. They can serve their state as well in such a capacity as if bearing arms.”

Here is a full transcript of the announcement: 

Attention Militia

Special Order   Head quarters, V.P.

Non. 1853                                           March 31 1862

Lieut. Col. J.R. Johnes 33 D Regiment Va. Vols.
is ordered to proceed to Rockingham County for the purpose of bringing out the Militia.  
By order of Maj. Gen. Jackson, A.S. Pendleton, A.A.G
A company of cavalry has been ordered to report to me here, for the purpose of executing the above order; and any additional force necessary will be sent. I sincerely hope, therefore, that All Militia Men Will promptly report themselves, and avoid the mortification of an arrest. I am authorised to say to the Tunkers and Menonites [sic], that Gen. Jackson believes them to be sincere in their opposition to engaging in war, and will detail them as teamsters, etc. They can serve their state as well in such a capacity as if bearing arms

Come Forward, Then, Promptly. 

You brethren from Rockbridge, Augusta, Shenandoah and Page are in the field, and our brave little army is hard pressed by the enemy.

You will rendezvous at the courthouse

On Thursday morning at 9 o’clock. Prepare to leave for the army. 

J.R. Jones Ct. Col.      33d Regt vol

We have a poster depicting scenes from the 1936 Mennonite World Conference held in Amsterdam.

And finally, we have a number of lovely etchings depicting Mennonite groups in the Netherlands.

“Mennonist Church named the Waterlanders” 
“Mennonist Church named the Flemings”
“The Sun; Depiction of the division of the bread in the Holy Supper by the Mennonites”
J.V. Schley “The Lord’s Supper of the Anabaptists Premiere figure”
J.V. Schley “The Lord’s Supper of the Anabaptists Seconde figure”

 
I hope you enjoyed this peek into the treasure chest that is our flat files. If you would like to see more, you can visit this website that contains a number of scans of other items in our collection.

Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch Among Hasidim and Amish

Mark L. Louden

Toward the beginning of the 1985 film directed by Peter Weir, Witness, the 8-year-old Amish protagonist, Samuel Lapp, is in a Philadelphia train station with his mother. At one point Samuel approaches a man from behind whom he believes to be Amish based on the man’s dark clothing and broad-brimmed black hat, only to discover that he is not Amish, but a Hasidic Jew.

There are obvious similarities between Hasidim, members of Orthodox Jewish sects (often described as “ultra-Orthodox”) whose strong faith infuses their daily lives, and the Amish. The spiritual descendants of a Jewish revival movement in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe, Hasidim, like their Amish counterparts, marry only within their communities, have large families, and maintain a measure of distance between themselves and outsiders, a distance that is marked outwardly through distinctive practices of daily living, including how they dress and groom themselves. Aside from the fact that Hasidim are Jewish and Amish are Christian, there are many differences between the two groups. Hasidim, for example, submit to the spiritual authority of a dynastic leader, a rebbe, and observe strict, biblically based dietary laws. In Amish congregations, bishops wield much less authority and there are no restrictions on the food Amish may eat or how it is prepared. The ways in which Hasidim and Amish educate their children differ as well. Hasidic children are segregated by gender in schools, with boys receiving a mostly religious curriculum in Yiddish. Amish-run schools, which are conducted exclusively in English, do not separate girls and boys and teach secular subject matter only.1

Hasidic family in Borough Park, Brooklyn, NY
(Adam Jones, public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

A presumed linguistic connection between Hasidim and Amish is depicted, this time humorously, in another Hollywood film, The Frisco Kid (1979). The film’s main character is Avram Belinski, a hapless Polish-Jewish immigrant rabbi played by Gene Wilder who is making his way from Philadelphia to San Francisco. At one point, Belinski mistakes a group of Amish people for Hasidim and addresses them in Yiddish, which the (standard) German-speaking Amish do not understand, prompting one of them to ask Belinski, “Dost thou speak English?” (Click here to see the clip of this scene.)

A notable similarity between Hasidim and Amish has to do with language. Most members of both groups speak languages that are related to German, but only distantly, Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch. In what follows I will compare Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch with respect to language structure as well as how they are used.2

Amish family at Niagara Falls
(Gilabrand, public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Although Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch are not mutually intelligible with German (or each other), both descend historically from varieties of southern German and diverged from German mainly through emigration. Yiddish is by far the older of the two languages. Its roots extend back to the ninth century, while Pennsylvania Dutch developed in the eighteenth century. Due to the lack of historical documentation for the oldest forms of Yiddish (the earliest written evidence for the language dates to the late thirteenth century), how it emerged as a distinct language is speculative. There is also a lack of scholarly consensus as to which southern German dialects Yiddish is most closely related to. A common view is that Yiddish developed in Jewish communities in the Central Rhine Valley, part of the West Central German dialect area, the regions marked 20 and 21 in the map below.3 Others place the Yiddish linguistic homeland farther east and south, in Bavaria (regions 33, 34, and 35), which belongs to the Upper German dialect group.

Continental West Germanic languages, not including Afrikaans, Pennsylvania Dutch, and Yiddish
(Rex Germanus, public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Another complicating factor in identifying the German roots of Yiddish is the considerable variation across the varieties that were spoken historically in Central and Eastern Europe. Yiddish dialects fall into two major groups, Western and Eastern. Western Yiddish, which has been moribund for some time, was spoken mostly in German-speaking Central Europe. Eastern Yiddish, which was the native language of most Jewish immigrants to the US in the late nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth centuries, including the Hasidim, was coterritorial with non-Germanic languages, mostly Slavic languages, Hungarian, Romanian, and Lithuanian. Within Eastern Yiddish there is considerable dialectal variation.4

The early history of Pennsylvania Dutch is much better understood, mainly because of its shorter time depth. The language developed through the immigration of German speakers to colonial Pennsylvania, most of whom hailed from the Palatinate, which is located partly in the Central Rhine Valley, hence there are many similarities between Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch. The German dialects that Pennsylvania Dutch most closely resembles today are in the region marked 20 in the map above.

As with Yiddish, there are dialects of Pennsylvania Dutch, though the differences across them are not nearly as great as within Eastern Yiddish. Pennsylvania Dutch dialects differ from one another mostly in vocabulary; the grammar and pronunciation are remarkably uniform. The original variation within Pennsylvania Dutch was geographically determined. In the heartland of the language, the counties located in the so-called Dutch Country of southeastern Pennsylvania, the clearest differences were between the varieties in Lehigh and eastern Berks counties and those used in Lancaster and western Berks counties. Amish and Mennonite sectarians, who collectively comprised only a small minority of the Pennsylvania Dutch founder population, came to be concentrated in Lancaster County. Today, most Amish Pennsylvania Dutch speakers live in the Midwest and their form of the language differs somewhat from what their coreligionists speak in Lancaster-affiliated communities, a natural consequence of change over time, however all Amish varieties of Pennsylvania Dutch are completely mutually intelligible.5

There are no absolute criteria according to which linguistic varieties are called “languages” or “dialects” and there is often disagreement among linguists and native speakers alike as to how to label specific varieties. Coincidentally, the most famous comment on the difference between languages and dialects was popularized by the linguist Max Weinreich, whose work on the history of the Yiddish is unparalleled. The quote, which Weinreich heard from a Yiddish speaker who attended one of his lectures, is “a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot” (A language is a dialect with an army and navy). What this essentially means is that when two linguistic varieties sharing a common ancestor have become autonomous from one another (e.g., administratively), it is reasonable to classify them as separate languages. And certainly, if it is difficult for speakers of the varieties in question to understand one another due to differences in vocabulary and grammar, that would move the needle further away from calling them dialects of a common language. In the case of Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch, their external (sociolinguistic) and internal (structural) distance from German is clear: both are best regarded as languages separate from German, as, for example, Dutch and Luxembourgish are.6

The linguistic distance between Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch and German can be shown by comparing how the same text is rendered in all three languages. Below are translations of the first five verses of Genesis. The Yiddish version is transliterated; written Yiddish uses the Hebrew alphabet. The Pennsylvania Dutch version is based on the Midwestern Amish variety of the language and is written in an orthography similar to English.

German (Luther 1545)7

1Am Anfang schuf Gott Himmel und Erde. Und die Erde war wüst und leer, und es war finster auf der Tiefe; und der Geist Gottes schwebte auf dem Wasser. Und Gott sprach: Es werde Licht! und es ward Licht. Und Gott sah, daß das Licht gut war. Da schied Gott das Licht von der Finsternis 5und nannte das Licht Tag und die Finsternis Nacht. Da ward aus Abend und Morgen der erste Tag.

Standard Yiddish (Solomon Blumgarten 1941)8

1in onheyb hot got bashafn dem himl un di erd. 2un di erd iz geven vist un leydik, un fintsternish iz geven oyfn gezikht fun thom, un der gayst fun got hot geshvebt oyfn gezikht fun di vasern. 3hot got gezogt: zol vern likht. un es iz gevorn likht. 4un got hot gezen dos likht az es iz gut; un got hot fanandergesheydt tsvishn dem likht un tsvishn der fintsternish. 5un got hot gerufn dos likht tog, un di fintsternish hot er gerufn nakht. un es iz geven ovnt, un es iz geven frimorgn, eyn tog.

Pennsylvania Dutch (Di Heilich Shrift 2013)9

1Am ohfang hott Gott da himmel un di eaht kshaffa. 2Nau di eaht voah gans veesht un leah. Es voah dunkel ivvah’s deef vassah, un Gott sei Geisht voah ivvah’s vassah. 3Un Gott hott ksawt, “Loss di helling gmacht sei,” un’s voah hell. 4Gott hott ksenna es di helling goot voah, un hott di helling fadayld fumm dunkla. 5Gott hott di helling “dawk” kaysa, un hott’s dunkla “nacht” kaysa. Un’s voah ohvet un meiya, da eahsht dawk.

I mentioned above that one difference between the use of Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch among Hasidim and Amish is that the former language is used as a medium of instruction in Hasidic parochial schools. In the teaching of religious subject matter, which is the primary focus in the education of Hasidic boys, pupils study sacred texts in Hebrew and Aramaic but discuss their content in Yiddish. One common way that scripture is taught is by reciting the original Hebrew phrase by phrase, interspersed with literal Yiddish translations.

Below is a recording of a contemporary Hasidic man reciting the biblical passage above in Hebrew and Yiddish. The Hebrew original is given in bold, with the Yiddish in roman script.10 The differences between the Hasidic and Standard Yiddish versions here are due to dialectal variation. The standard variety commonly used when Yiddish is formally taught in non-Hasidic institutions is based largely on the Eastern dialects that were historically coterritorial with Lithuania. Most modern Hasidic varieties of Yiddish derive from dialects that used to be spoken farther south, in an area where Hungarian, among other languages, was also spoken.

Hasidic Hebrew and Yiddish

1berayshes – in unhayb, buru eloykim – hot der aybershter bashafn, es hashumaim – dem himl, veays huurets – in di erd. 2vehuurets – in di erd, hoysu – iz geveyn, soyhi – pist, vuvoyhi – in vist, vekhoyshekh – in tinkl, al pnay sehoym – hekhern upgrint; veriekh eloykim – in der gayst finem aybershtn, merakheyfes – hot geshveybt, al pnay hamoyim – hekhern vaser. 3vayoymer eloykim – in der aybershter hot gezugt, yehi oyr – es zol zaan lekhtik, vayhi oyr – in es iz gevorn lekhtik. 4vayar eloykim – in der aybershter hot gezeyn, es huoyr – di lekhtikayt, ki toyv – az zi iz git, vayavdayl eloykim – in der aybershter hot upgeshaydt, bayn huoyr – tsvishn der lekhtikayt, ibayn hakhoysekh – in tsvishn der tinklkayt. 5vayikru eloykim – in der aybershter hot gerifn, luoyr – tsi der likhtikayt, yoym – tug, velakhoyshekh – in tsi der tinklkayt, kuru – hot er gerifn, loylu – nakht, vayhi eyrev – es iz geveyn uvnt, vayhi boyker – es iz geveyn in der fri, yoym eykhud – deym ershtn tug.

In the past, both Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch were once widely spoken by people not affiliated with Hasidic or traditional Anabaptist groups. So-called secular Yiddish speakers advanced the frontiers of the language during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in many ways. Yiddish became a vital vehicle for communication in several public spheres, including literature, politics, and scholarly research, and there were countless periodicals produced in Yiddish whose content in many cases was not connected to the Jewish faith. The Holocaust dealt a critical blow to the language. Perhaps as much as one-half of the world’s Yiddish-speaking population was murdered by Nazi Germany. Although Yiddish continues to be spoken by non-Hasidic Jews today, many of whom identify as Yiddishists, ardent advocates for the language and culture, the Hasidim far outnumber these more secular speakers.

The counterparts of secular Yiddish speakers in Pennsylvania Dutch–speaking society are known among scholars as “nonsectarians,” or more popularly the “Church People” or “Fancy Dutch.” Nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch are the descendants of non-Anabaptist German-speaking immigrants to rural Pennsylvania during the colonial era who had little contact with Amish or Mennonites from the early nineteenth century on. They became the main standard bearers of a rich folk culture that included several thousand texts, including literary works. But unlike Yiddish, Pennsylvania Dutch was always used almost exclusively by rural dwellers of modest educational background. Among those Pennsylvania Dutch people, sectarian or nonsectarian, who aspired to move “up” socially or who chose to marry non-Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking partners, the shift to speaking English only was in most cases rapid. Today, the vast majority of active speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch are members of Amish and traditional Mennonite groups, who choose to live in rural areas and set limits on the degree to which they interact with the larger society, thereby creating a social space within which their heritage language remains vital.

Despite their status today as the main speakers of Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch, neither Hasidim nor Amish engage in conscious efforts to cultivate, promote, or celebrate their heritage languages. Language maintenance is a secondary phenomenon of how both groups live out their faith. For their part, Hasidim adhere to a teaching that observant Jews should avoid innovation in their names, language, and clothing, which is derived from a belief that the preservation of these cultural practices by the biblical Israelites contributed to their redemption from slavery in Egypt. The quote below is from a Hasidic man interviewed by a Yiddish-speaking linguist, Isaac Bleaman, and is included in Bleaman’s 2018 doctoral thesis comparing the sociolinguistic situations of Hasidim and Yiddishists in New York.11

The rabbis are always saying you’re not allowed to change your language. It says in Midrash [biblical commentaries] on account of three things the Jews could leave (Egypt) . . . Shem [name], lushn [language], and malbesh [clothing]. Shem is the name, they didn’t make their names goyish [non-Jewish]. Lushn and malbesh . . . So the Hasidim will interpret lushn to mean language, to mean how the way that your parents spoke. So you must continue to speak . . . if your mother speaks Yiddish, you must also speak Yiddish and if you change, then you have a problem.12

An additional important factor underlying the maintenance of Yiddish among Hasidim has to do with Hebrew. Among observant Jews generally, Hebrew, which is a Semitic language unrelated to Germanic Yiddish, has unique significance as the sacred language of scripture that has been a constant throughout the entire history of the Jewish people. Some Jewish thinkers have even declared that Hebrew was the original language of humanity: “The language created by God, which He taught Adam and placed on his tongue and in his heart, is without any doubt the most perfect and most fitted to express the things specified.”13 Most Hasidim feel that Hebrew, as the holy tongue, is unsuited for everyday communication, making Yiddish, which is still a uniquely Jewish language, an appropriate vernacular for in-group communication. Yiddish also serves as a marker of the spiritual-cultural boundary between Hasidim and outsiders, both other Jews and non-Jews.

Amish and other traditional Anabaptists do not subscribe to an explicit, scripturally based ideology that justifies the maintenance of Pennsylvania Dutch, however its continued use is viewed as a tangible connection to their spiritual heritage.14 Amish people affectionately refer to Pennsylvania Dutch as their Mudderschprooch (mother tongue), which evokes that it is the language they first learn to speak at home and what their forebears spoke. The similar affection among Hasidim for Yiddish is reflected in their description of it (but not Hebrew) as their mame-loshn, which also means ‘mother tongue’. Like Yiddish, Pennsylvania Dutch performs a boundary-maintaining function for Amish and other Plain people, as it has now become a language that is effectively their own.

The meaning of Mudderschprooch is extended by the Amish to include German; the Pennsylvania Dutch word Deitsch means either ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ or ‘German’. Just as the Hasidim feel that maintaining Hebrew is essential for the practice of their faith, German has a similar status among the Amish, though the Amish do not believe that German is an inherently holy tongue. They know that German was not the original language of the Bible, yet it is at the center of their devotional life. They use Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible and prayer books and hymnals that are in an archaic form of standard German called by linguists “Amish High German” or “Pennsylvania High German.” The Amish do not proscribe the use of German for non-religious purposes, but their everyday communicative needs are met by Pennsylvania Dutch and English. As members of North American society, the Amish recognize that English is essential for their economic survival and it is the main language they read and write. For their part, Hasidim also speak, read, and write the languages of the larger communities in which they live, however their proficiency in Yiddish as a written as well as an oral medium distinguishes them from the Amish, who rarely read or write Pennsylvania Dutch.

The ideology that calls Hasidim to signal their Jewish identity overtly in names, language, and clothing has a clear parallel among the Amish and other Plain Anabaptists. Although Amish people do not have given names that are different from those of their non-Plain neighbors, their speech and dress and grooming set them apart. The reflections of an Old Order Mennonite minister are apt here, linking distinctive verbal behavior and appearance to the cardinal Anabaptist virtue of humility.

In my opinion, though the Deitsch we have is not a written language, it is enough to help keep us together as a people. God confused the languages, and it served a good purpose. Now maybe we should not strive for a unified language. I often think how an old sister counseled, soon after I had joined the church, that “children should also learn a little something about bearing their cross, with their clothing style.” I think also it is thus with the language. It is good for them to endure a little ridicule.15

Both Hasidim and Amish “endure a little ridicule” for how they live out their faith, but their demographic success – their growth rates are exponential due to large average family sizes and low attrition – is remarkable. And as the Hasidic and Amish populations increase, the futures of both Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch look bright.


1. The scholarly and popular literature about Hasidim and Amish is vast. Two book-length treatments of each group to be recommended are Hasidic People: A Place in the New World by Jerome R. Mintz (Harvard University Press, 1992) and The Amish by Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

2. To date, there has been one article devoted to comparing Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch, “A Lexical Comparison of Two Sister Languages: Pennsylvania German and Yiddish,” Pennsylvania Folklife 29: 138–142, by John R. Costello (1980). Thanks to Edward E. Quinter, Allentown, PA, for bringing this article to my attention.

3. Map source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_German_languages#/media/File:Continental_West_Germanic_languages.png.

4. As is true of the scholarly and popular literature on the Hasidim, there are scores of publications on Yiddish. One recent title is Yiddish: Biography of a Language by Jeffrey Shandler (Oxford University Press, 2020).

5. For an overview of the history of Pennsylvania Dutch, including its status among Amish and other Plain people, see Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language by Mark L. Louden (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).

6. See the Wikipedia entry for “A language is a dialect with an army and navy”.

7. Source: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Mose%201&version=LUTH1545. The source of the sound clip is accessible here.

8. Source: Torah, Nevi’im, u-Khetuvim by Solomon Blumgarten (Yehoash Farlag Gezelshaft, 1941). Blumgarten’s translation of the Book of Genesis (Breyshis, in Hebrew) is accessible here. The sound clip is excerpted from a video recording of Samuel Kassow, a native speaker of Yiddish and professor of history at Trinity College. The recording was produced by the Yiddish Book Center, based in Amherst, MA, which is a premier organization for the documentation and dissemination of Yiddish language and culture: https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/. I am grateful to Isaac Bleaman for bringing this video recording to my attention. Note that Kassow pronounces the words es iz ‘it is’ as “shi”, which is a feature of his Northeastern (Lithuanian-Belarusian) Yiddish dialect: es iz > siz > si > shi. He also pronounces oyfn ‘on the’ as “afn”.

9. Source: Di Heilich Shrift, which was produced by a committee of native speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch from Ohio who were of Amish background (Wycliffe Bible Translators, 2013). The complete translation is accessible here. I produced the sound clip of this excerpt myself.

10. I am indebted here again to Isaac Bleaman, who is a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley and a fluent Yiddish speaker (https://www.isaacbleaman.com/). An anonymous Hasidic friend of Isaac’s kindly created this sound clip for this blog post and Isaac produced the transcription.

11. “Outcomes of Minority Language Maintenance: Variation and Change in New York Yiddish” by Isaac L. Bleaman, Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 2018, pp. 55–61.

12. Bleaman 2018, p. 57. This quote is translated from Yiddish.

13. This quote is from The Kuzari, a seminal philosophical text by the Spanish Jewish poet and thinker Judah Halevi (d. 1141), as cited on p. 71 of “Holy Land, Holy Language: A Study of Ultraorthodox Jewish Ideology” by Lewis Glinert and Yosseph Shilhav, Language in Society 20: 59–86 (1991).

14. A thoughtful essay on the ecology of Pennsylvania Dutch, German, and English in Amish society is “What Is a Language?” (Family Life, February 1986, pp. 12–16), which was written by Benuel S. Blank, an Amish man. The essay is accessible here.

15. Amos B. Hoover, German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage, Ephrata, PA: Muddy Creek Farm Library, 2018, pp. 52–54. The original quote was in Pennsylvania Dutch. See also my post on this blog from January 20, 2021, “Humility and the Pennsylvania Dutch Language.”